Monday, August 29, 2016

Changes during a Busy Summer

            It has now been five years since I first started this blog. In the next couple of months, I am hoping to go back and reread all my entries. I think it is good to review all the places I’ve been and the ways I have changed, but also stayed uniquely myself. I know I certainly have learned a lot in the last five years and continue to grow as I continually find life changing.
            This summer has felt like a lot of change for me. All the transition has been a lot to process, especially since I have been sick for the last half of the summer. I had been having a lot of digestive problems and fatigue and finally after trying to change my diet and lifestyle went to the doctor to find out I had strep throat. Apparently you can have strep throat without having a sore throat or a fever. I am just glad there is a cause to my problems and hopefully being on antibiotics, I can feel better before my semester begins tomorrow.  
            The summer began really well as I participated in Mennonite Central Committee’s Borderlands Learning Tour, where I learned all about immigration issues, and then walked 75 miles from the U.S./Mexico border to Tucson, Arizona on The Migrant Trail, to bear witness to all the immigrants who have lost their lives in the desert due to unjust immigration policies. I then spent the rest of the summer studying the theology of immigration and talked a couple of different times at my home church in Ohio and my current church in Indiana. I will post those reflections on the blog soon. After Arizona, I spent a week with my family in Colorado. High points included hiking two 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet) with my brothers and hanging out with my two-year-old nephew Ethan. He lives in Kansas so sadly I do not get to see him nearly enough.
            The other two trips I made this summer was a long weekend to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I officiated the wedding of two of my best friends from college, Lisle and Elias. I still cannot believe that they asked me and feel so privileged to have been a part of that really special day. Although I am in seminary, in the Mennonite church, you are not ordained until a couple of years after you have been serving in your ministry. So I took the thirty seconds to get my online ordination with the Universal Life Church. The entire weekend was full of so much love and fun. I got to catch up with some of my closest friends from college as well as make new friends. The second trip I made was also for a wedding, this time for Bekah (my college friend with whom I toured Turkey with in January) in Richmond, Virginia. I then made stops to visit other college friends and cousin Cara in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, Washington DC, and a night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
            The rest of my summer I filled with dogsitting and working at the co-op with a few trips to Ohio to see my parents. My parents are moving to Kansas in a couple of weeks, so I have had to spend time sorting through all my stuff still in Ohio and deciding which to keep, throw away, or give away. Although it is a necessary task and it was fun to see old artwork and journals, it was very tedious. It has also been hard to think about my parents moving far away. I am used to being the one leaving. I think it will be great that they will be near their grandchildren and my grandma, but I have loved being able to see my parents every few weeks at least, and being able to run off to Ohio (2.5 hours from where I live) when life seems overwhelming. It also feels like the end of childhood as I will no longer have a bedroom at their new house and all my stuff will be in Indiana.
            One of the hardest parts was having to put down my 13-year old cat, Mellie. She came as a stray when I was twelve years old, meaning that she has been a part of my life for the majority of my life. She was getting old, though, and was doing very well and would have been unable to live through and adjust to a move. Although I knew there was no other choice, it was so hard to take her to the vet. I still feel some guilt as I remember trying to calm her in the car by saying it would be okay, only to break down crying because it was not okay. But as the vet brought her in with her IV, she was purring and she died peacefully in my arms—the person who loved her best and the person she loved the most. In many ways, it was a very beautiful ending to a good life.
            The other transition has been moving across town. It might not seem like a huge transition, but with everything else happening in my life, it has been rough. My old landlord sold my house and so my housemates and I all found new places to live (one of whom is currently hiking the Appalachian Trail and another begun voluntary service in Colorado). If you remember, I really loved my old housemates and the house itself and so I was not too happy about the move. I am now in a house near the Goshen College campus living with three other girls. They are all very nice, but I think it is going to take a while before I feel settled and happy there. It is especially annoying because it has nearly doubled my commute to school, although biking to downtown is now easier and safer than before.
            With all the changes, trips, and sickness I am pretty exhausted. I feel like I need a vacation just to recover from the summer. But classes start tomorrow and this semester promises to be full. I am taking nine credit hours and have an internship doing immigration work in Elkhart County, as well as continuing working at the co-op and my church. I am starting my second year as a volunteer teacher for English as a Second Language classes that happen once a week at a church in Elkhart. I also leave in a week for a 40-hour training in immigration law in Akron, Pennsylvania as part of my internship. I am really excited about all of these things, as well as the routine and cooler weather that fall brings, but I do wish I was feeling more ready.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Identity in the Egyptian Context

As a final post on my time in Egypt, I am posting my final reflection paper I wrote as part of the course work. I don't expect many people to read the entire post, but I know there are some people from my group who would be interested, as well as others who might want to know how I've incorporated my encounter with Egypt into my own life and thoughts about identity.

 Identity in the Egyptian Context
          Identity is a multi-layered, complex part of being human. Many aspects of identity are given to people at birth, such as gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and ethnicity to name a few. All of these factors shape who we are and how we interact with the world around us. These factors also influence how others view and treat us. However, we also make choices that help define our identity and who we are in the world. During my time Egypt, I witnessed first-hand many of the different layers of identity that exist. As I encountered Egypt through the people I met and the places we visited, I saw how religion, nationality, and history, even ancient history as it exists in Egypt, plays an important role in defining our identity as well as our choices. In this paper I examine many different issues of identity that Egyptian Christians face, and how I experience my own identity. Identity changes the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. Through my time in Egypt I found similarities in identity as well as deep differences that opened up my worldview to expand my understanding of identity and how the context around us shapes us in many different ways and how we can also shape the world around us.
Tradition and history as part of identity
            The first full day of my time in Egypt included an introduction to Coptic Christian identity with the tour of Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. In this space, I saw in person the way that history, tradition, and art play an important role in the identity of Coptic Christians. The outside of this church, also known as the Hanging Church, has mosaics depicting different biblical scenes that took place in Egypt, as well as important events in Coptic Christian history. These mosaics, which are fairly recent additions to the courtyard, show that the history of Christianity in Egypt goes back a long ways and that this history is still important today. As I walked through this courtyard and into the church, I stood in awe of the history and tradition that was right in front of me. Even though a lot of the church has been rebuilt and renovated throughout its history, the deep history and set of traditions could be felt in the air, just walking through. Inside the church, every space was filled with sacred designs and art that depicted history, tradition, and symbolism. Coming from Mennonite churches in the Untied States, I am not used to such decoration and icons. However, through the art and carvings on the doors, walls, pulpit, and even the benches, I witnessed depictions of how God has worked through the life of the Church in Egypt. This art made me feel closer to God as it witnesses to Christians today of the power and glory of God. The art itself is part of a long tradition in the Coptic Church and serves to be a sacred space where Christians can encounter God.
            The sense of history and tradition was amplified with our next stop at Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church. This is the spot where tradition says that baby Jesus stayed with his parents after fleeing to Egypt when King Herod ordered the killing of all children in and around Bethlehem as written in the Matthew 2:1-18. Although this fact cannot be verified, I could see how proud the Egyptians we encountered in the church were of the fact that their ancestors welcomed and hosted baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph. In this story, Egypt is seen as a place of refuge. This identity of being the host of baby Jesus is important to some of the Coptic Christians we met and thus the story of Jesus staying at that church has been passed from generation to generation and is believed by many to be true. This tradition of being host has become a part of the Egyptian Christian identity.
            A major part of the trip was spent visiting ancient Egyptian sites including the pyramids of Gaza, the Valley of the Kings, the Abu Simbel temples and many, many more. These sites were incredible to behold in person and are a source of national pride for many Egyptians. This shared common history is one source of identity for most Egyptians, regardless of religion. Jacques van der Vliet writes that this shared identity is called “pharaonism” in academic terms and “is a way of claiming a deeply rooted national identity that transcends the religious opposition between Egypt’s Muslim majority and its indigenous Christian minority.”[1] The Egyptians I encountered were deeply proud of the ancient history of Egypt and were happy that we as foreigners got the chance to visit these ancient sites. Even as we would discover deep differences between different groups in Egypt and how religion plays a huge role in identity formation, I witnessed how history also defines ones identity and can be a bonding point for people.
Paradox of identity
            Although ancient Egypt can be a bonding point for all Egyptians, Egyptian Christians also struggle with identifying with the Egypt in the Bible. Even as Egypt is host to baby Jesus in the gospels, Egypt is better known for being the monster in the story of the Exodus. The complexity of identity comes to the forefront as Egyptian Christians have had to process what it means to be able to identify as the Israelites in the Exodus story, as part of God’s chosen people and identify as Egyptians, who were the oppressors in the story. Safwat Marzouk writes in Egypt as Monster in the Book of Ezekiel, “Reading the Hebrew Bible in a Christian Egyptian context is an identity question.”[2] He goes on to describe how some Egyptian Christians have thrown out the story of the Exodus, not wanting to deal with this issue of identity. These Christians believe that by ignoring these texts, they are able to stay true to their nationalistic sense of identity of being Egyptians. For many, these ancient texts do not have anything to do with current Egypt.[3] Another approach that Christian Egyptians take that Marzouk describes is an allegorical interpretation; “they argue that Egypt in the Bible is just a symbol for something else.”[4] These Christians will say that they identify with Israel, because it stands for the good, while Egypt in the story stands for the evil. They are able to identify with their religious identity instead of their political identity. Marzouk is critical of this approach because by only reading the text allegorically, Egyptian Christians ignore the historical realities.[5] The identity of an Egyptian Christian is one of paradox when it comes to the Bible as seen here.
            My identity as an American Christian also comes with a similar paradox. Obviously, the United States is not mentioned in the Bible and was not a political state during the writing of the Bible. Growing up with the Exodus story, I have always identified with Israel in the story and have not given the Egyptians in the story much thought. However, learning about Egyptian Christians struggle with this paradox, I have been able to make connections. The United States today could be described as a powerful empire in the world. In many places in the world, the United States is seen as the oppressor. When I was traveling in Egypt, I was seen as a representative of the United States. Part of my own identity is being a white, middle-class American. This is not an identity I chose, but it is a part of myself that I have to live with. I live with a paradox of being a pacifist Christian and at the same time, a citizen of a country whose foreign policy and military hurts a lot of people throughout the world. Instead of denying a part of my identity, I need to be able to see my own identity as complex and always changing. Marzouk writes, “When one sees identity as something fluid and hybrid and recognizes that formulating an identity is an ongoing process, one is better able to live with paradox.”[6] Learning about the Egyptian Christian identity and visiting Egypt as a white, privileged, American Christian, allowed me to recognize the paradox within my own identity and think deeper about the complexity and fluidity of having both a national and religious identity that sometimes clashes.
Identity as a minority group
            Although I recognized some similarities between Egyptian and American Christians as both groups have to live with a paradox of having national and religious identities, the Egyptian situation is different as Christians there are a minority group in the country and face some persecution and discrimination. During the trip we met with several different groups of Christians, both Orthodox and Protestant. Three encounters were very significant to me as I learned about being a Christian in a country with a repressive government and Islam as the majority religion. The first encounter was with Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki, the head of the Protestant Churches in Egypt. He talked about the tough political situation Egypt was in and how many Christians were supportive of the current government because it was better than Hosni Mubarak who was in power for years and then the short time after the revolution when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. The current government has put many people in jail unjustly and has resorted to violence. However, the church in Egypt wants to simply survive and thus has a choice to support the lesser of two evils or speak out against injustice and face greater persecution and violence. The church in the United States cannot comprehend this, as Christianity is the majority religion. I can speak out about peace and nonviolence, but I do not live in a place were violent persecution is an actual threat. The church in Egypt has to make choices that I, as a privileged American Christian, cannot fully understand because of the political context it is in.
            The second encounter that emphasized the difference between American and Egyptian Christians was with Tharwat Wahba, one of the professors at the Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo. During a question and answer time the professor mentioned that foreign friends will sometimes ask about the state of LGBTQ issues within the church in Egypt and he tells them that the church in Egypt is simply trying to survive and does not have the time and energy to be having those types of discussions. Although I would give a small push-back to this as I have read about the violence and persecution that LGBTQ persons have faced in Egypt, I think he makes an important point. The church in Egypt has a different identity than the church elsewhere in the world and is facing different problems. I can say that the Egyptian church needs to look into some of these issues, but I can only say that because I am sitting in my nice home in the United States, not having to worry that I could go to jail for something I say. I do not have to worry about being discriminated against for my beliefs. I have the privilege of being able to think theologically about issues facing the LGBTQ community because I do not have to think of what real persecution the church will be facing tomorrow. Egyptian Christians do not have this privilege. 
            The third encounter was with Reverend Gendi Rizk, the pastor of the El-Saraya Church in Alexandria. He told the story of how a new church was being built after years of jumping through bureaucratic hoops. However one day, he showed up and there was bulldozer in front of the church. At first he described the anger he felt, but then he decided that the church in Egypt has been there for two thousand years and they had already waited years to build the church, so it was okay to wait longer and retaliating against the people destroying their building would not do much good. It was interesting to hear this story for different reasons. First, it confirmed the real persecution that exists against Christians in Egypt. This persecution is not just imagined, but is a part of life there. Second, it showed the patience and resiliency of the Christians in Egypt. On one of the first days, our leader Dr. Safwat Marzouk asked the group why the church has survived in Egypt, while it has disappeared in other countries in the Middle East. One answer I would give to this question is this patience and resiliency that I witnessed through Rev. Rizk as well as through other Christians, Coptic and Protestant, that we encountered while in Egypt. The Christians I encountered had all experienced persecution and discrimination in different ways, but yet stories like Rev. Rizk’s was not uncommon. In the midst of hardship, Egyptian Christians have remained true to what they believe is the core of the gospel, which is to love others and meet human needs.
            Christian-Muslim relations is a big conversation in Egypt. One’s religion is put on your identity card at birth. As mentioned, there is real persecution and discrimination towards to Christians from the Muslim majority. However, this is not the whole picture. On our last day in Cairo, we visited Al-Azhar University, a prestigious Islamic institution, and met with one of the top scholars. He emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace and that the Quran teaches religious tolerance. Our hosts at the university showed us great hospitality and served us fresh juice and snacks, even as we were only there for an hour. They welcomed questions and encouraged more dialogue between Christians and Muslims. These Muslims we met saw their faith as a large part of their identity, but one that promoted peace within the country. They spoke harshly against Islamic terrorist groups. Many Muslims feel this way and see Egyptian Christians as their neighbors. The same is true of many Christians. In a study by Yvonne Haddad and Joshua Donovan published in Studies in World Christianity, they found that the Copts in Egypt were living peaceably with their Muslim neighbors. There are cases of discrimination, but Copts identify themselves as Egyptians and do not want Western interference as advocated by some of the Diaspora currently living in the United States.[7] Through researching and learning about Muslim-Christian relations, I was able to see that identity is more complex than just claiming a minority, persecuted position. One’s identity is caught up in a web of relationships with the other, which is both a large group such as Muslims or the government, as well as your neighbors. Even as I had three encounters with Christians discussing discrimination and persecution, I also witnessed people trying to live peacefully with their neighbors and work together to create a better future for their country.
Christian identity in action
            Learning how to live peacefully together is one way that I witnessed Egyptian Christians putting their Christian identity into practice. The emphasis on the identity of Christians as acting out the simple message of the Bible was made by Rev. Rizk and exemplified by actions he and his church in Alexandria have taken. Rev. Rizk talked about how he has studied theology in both Egypt and the United States, but his home church in Egypt has influenced his theology the most. He told our group that he sees that the call of Christians is to act as Christ and meet the human needs that exist within one’s community. He then told us of the different ways that his church tries to live this call. He first described how the church started a nursery school for members of the congregation because both parents worked and needed a place for their children to go. Then, the church started a school for people with special needs because a family in the congregation had a child with autism and in Egypt there is a stigma against this group of people and very little in the way of educational services. The school has grown to reflect the current society with the majority of the students coming from Muslim families. The school works to provide skills to people of all ages with special needs and also works with the families to incorporate the people into society and work against the negative stigma. The church sees both the nursery school and the special needs school as a part of their call of being Christians. However, the church also works on church planting, believing that evangelism is also an important part of the gospel and this is not at odds with the social services they provide. Opening these schools and church planting are specific actions that the church in Egypt has taken to live out its Christian identity.
            Other organizations we met with have also found ways to live out what it sees as its Christian identity. While in Cairo, we met with CEOSS, the Coptic Organization for Social Services, which is a large nonprofit serving 250 communities throughout Egypt working in the areas of development, culture, and resource development. The organization was started and is run by Christians, but sees its mission as much broader. The mission as stated on their website is “to promote the sanctity, equity, and harmony of life. It seeks to contribute to the transformation of society by nurturing moral and spiritual awareness, enhancing a sense of belonging, promoting respect for diversity, addressing conflict, and advancing social justice for individuals and communities.”[8] The organization sees this mission as part of the gospel that is for all people, not just Christians. They emphasize that they work for all Egyptians, regardless of religion or social status. I was impressed to hear about all the work that CEOSS does and how it is responding to the needs that are in Egyptian society. They do not give any direct handouts, but instead support other organizations that do, and try to address some of the root causes of conflict in the country by such actions as facilitating dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
            Another example of where I saw Christians living out their identity was a visit to Manshiyat Naser, better known as Garbage City. This area of Cairo is home to some of the city’s poorest people who have been the outcasts of society whose main occupation is that of garbage collecting. Although many of the main streets have been cleaned, there was still garbage everywhere, including inside the houses. However, at the end of the road were two huge churches built out of the rocks. There, we learned the incredible story of a Coptic priest who felt a call from God to witness to the garbage collectors and live within that community. He saw the humanity in the people there and today the church includes sixty thousand families. Instead of a place of garbage and poverty, I saw the neighborhood as place where God’s love was able to take hold and transform lives. As we talked with a man who grew up there, we learned how life there is still really hard for the people, but the church has made things better. The church works to meet basic human needs as well as provide a space for anyone to feel welcome. Through its witness to the city’s marginalized and outcasts, the church has grown to huge numbers and is living out its Christian identity in a radical way.
My changing identity
            My time in Egypt changed the way I look at identity. First, while living in my own specific context in the United States, I often forget how much my identity is influenced by the history and traditions of my family, my nation, and my religion. The United States does not have as old of a history as Egypt, but its history is still a large source of identity for Americans. I am influenced by this history in many ways that I have recognized and other ways that I am still figuring out. Within my Mennonite faith, I can see very clear ways that tradition, especially the pacifist tradition, has largely influenced my identity and my actions. Growing up in this specific tradition has changed the way that I see the world around me. Within the larger Christian tradition, my time in Egypt allowed me to see how my identity has been shaped by biblical history. I felt at home in the churches we visited because the history of God’s people is also my history. I could celebrate with the church in Egypt because these were my brothers and sisters in Christ. History and tradition have a profound impact on identity.
            My time in Egypt also made clear how there is often a paradox in our identities. Identity overlaps many different areas of our lives and often these different identities do not mesh well together. In both Egypt and the United States, I see how religious and national identities are often at odds. Sometimes you have to choose which identity you act from, while at the same time, it is important to be able to find ways to recognize and live in the paradox. This is not an easy task, but I am encouraged that it is possible from the ways I witnessed many Egyptians authentically trying to do this. I also recognize, though, that this paradoxical identity changes when one is part of a minority group. After being in Egypt, I am able to more fully recognize the privilege of living in the majority. As a white, middle-class, heterosexual American, I do not face many of the daily struggles that minority people do. My privilege allows me to concentrate on large-scale justice issues because I do not face discrimination and struggle on a daily basis. The trip reminded me of my privilege and how this also impacts my identity and my actions in real ways.
            Finally, as I witnessed Egyptian Christians making choices to live out their Christian identity by meeting simple human needs and trying to be Christ’s love to the world, I was inspired. We are all given a certain identity in the world, but we also have the freedom to make choices of how we live out that identity. I hope that I am different because of my time Egypt, witnessing people living out the simple gospel message. I want to continue to find ways to live out my own Christian identity in the context of where I am now in the United States. I live in a very different context than Egypt, but there are needs all around me and my choices can affect lives. Just as my identity influences my choices, my choices and actions help determine my identity in the world.
            My time in Egypt allowed me to witness many different layers and aspects of identity. History and traditions still shape identity today and can be used to remind people of a shared identity. Identities are also often paradoxical. Egyptian Christians have to live with the paradox of identifying both with Egypt and Israel in the exodus story and what it means to have a national identity that is at times at odds with a Christian identity. American Christians also face a similar paradox as we want to bring peace to the world, but are citizens of a country with an oppressive military and foreign policy. Idenitites are also largely defined by social location and holding a minority identity changes the way one acts in the world. Egyptian Christians face many different problems than American Christians and are impacted greatly by their position of being a minority group in Egypt. However, people also have a choice of how to live out their identity in the world. I witnessed Egyptian Christians living out the gospel message of meeting needs in society and showing Christ’s love. Identity plays a huge role in our lives and is complex and multi-layered and often presents paradox. However, by recognizing the many different aspects, we can find ways to live out our identity in ways that make this world a better place.

            [1] Jacques van der Vliet, “The Copts: 'Modern Sons of the Pharaohs'?” Church History and Religious Culture 89, no. 1-3 (2009): 279.
            [2] Safwat Marzouk, Egypt as Monster in the Book of Ezekiel (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 10.
            [3] Ibid., 11.
            [4] Ibid.

            [5] Ibid., 12.

            [6] Ibid., 242.
            [7] Yvonne Haddad and Joshua Donovan, “Good Copt, Bad Copt: Competing Narratives on Coptic Identity in Egypt and the United States,” Studies in World Christianity 19 no. 3 (2013): 225.
            [8] “Who We Are,” CEOSS, last modified 2015, accessed March 19, 2016,

Friday, March 25, 2016


          In my last post, I was pretty harsh about my time in Egypt. It was true, that I did struggle with many things while in the county. However, I also had some amazing experiences and made some awesome memories! In this post I want to share a couple of stories, along with some pictures.
          First, my first full day in Egypt I celebrated my 25th birthday. This was especially exciting to me because I was in my 25th country! My group surprised me with a huge cake that night! It had tons of fruit on it and then they had me cut it into enough pieces for everyone in the group. I learned that I am not an expert cake cutter, but it was an incredible way to celebrate my birthday!
Our first few days were spent in Cairo where we met with a Christian service organization that does a lot of amazing work in Egypt, went to the Presbyterian seminary where my professor Safwat had gone to school, met with top Islamic scholars, and visited a huge Coptic church built into the rocks. At these places, we heard about some really great things happening in the country and people who were passionate about peace and trying to make Egypt a better place. I hope to write more about these specific experiences in later posts. But I just want to say that I was really inspired by the Egyptians I met and the work being done in this midst of difficult political and economic situations.
          My professor from AMBS Safwat was one of the leaders for the trip and since Egypt is his home country, he was a great person to have along on the trip. One of my fondest memories was going to a local cafe with him and four others from my group and just drinking tea and talking. We also had our own Egyptologist on the trip name Henry. Henry was really great and gave us so much information as well as told some really bad jokes. Having these two Egyptians really made the trip come alive.
          A trip to Egypt would not be complete without seeing the ancient sites. Going to the pyramids is an experience I will never forget! I got to climb on one (until security yelled at me), go in one, and then take a camel ride in front! Riding a camel had always been a dream and it was awesome being able to take a 30 minute ride on Michael Jackson (my camel's name). My mom also rode a camel and we both agree that it is better than horseback! My camel must have been quite old and well-trained because the boy leading gave me the reigns, while everyone else was led! Wow, I still cannot believe that I did that!
          After our time in Cairo, we took an overnight train to Luxor. I won't include much on the train ride, but I will say that I do NOT recommend taking trains in Egypt! I might be an adventurous person, but I think the whole group agreed that this is one experience that doesn't need repeating. In Luxor, we visited the Valley of the Kings, which once again was simply outstanding. We couldn't take pictures, but we could touch the walls with two thousand year old hieroglyphics! I have seen Egyptian artifacts in museums around the world, but experiencing it in person is completely different. I cannot describe in adequate words how awesome it was.
          After the Valley of the Kings, we boarded a four day Nile cruise. As we sailed from Luxor to Aswan, we visited a lot of ancient temples. Every one of them was unique and fun to explore. The cruise itself was also great! During the day, when the sun shone, it was so warm and I loved taking naps in the sun and while watching the banks of the Nile slowly drift by. Although at the time I was a little overwhelmed by all we saw in such a short time, looking back, I have such great memories of those explorations.

          After a day in Aswan, we took a train back to Cairo (this time the overnight train experience was even worse!) and then headed to Alexandria, stopping for lunch at a monastery. I really enjoyed hearing the history of the monastery and Coptic Christianity in Egypt. Alexandria was also a really neat city where I would love to spend more time! The new library there is magnificent and the Mediterranean Sea was beautiful, although it was kind of stormy while we were there.
          I have to say, though, that one of my favorite parts of the trip was spending it with my mom. I love my mom so much and to be able to see these ancient sites with her and have someone close to process everything with was just great. Who gets the opportunity to do something like this with their mom?!? I feel so blessed to have such an amazing woman in my life who loves me so much and is willing to put up with my travel crabbiness and go on such a crazy adventure! I wouldn't have wanted to do this trip with anyone else!

          There really are so many more stories to tell from this crazy journey, but I hope that this post displays just a little bit of how awesome Egypt was! One reason I like traveling is that things do not happen as you expect them to. Like in normal life, traveling life has its ups and downs and is not what you expect. But even in the midst of a changing identity and a structure of a tour group that I did not like, I saw some incredible things and met some amazing people and was able to do it with one of the most important people in my life.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Change of Identity in Egypt

          It feels like forever since I was in the Middle East, exploring ancient ruins. My return back to the United States was kind of tumultuous and instead of being able to continue processing what happened on my trip, I thrown into a new, very busy semester, the end of my first relationship, and trying to recover from jet lag and some bug I picked up while in Egypt. Then, after feeling like I was finally better from that first week back, I just got caught up in the busyness of life. But I realize that I need to reflect on what happened, partly because I have a paper due on Egypt that I have barely started, but also because it is an unfinished part of the journey. When I travel, I want to be able to come home changed from what I have seen and done. This change takes reflecting on the good and hard parts. As I wrote over a month ago, my time in Turkey was amazing. However, I struggled in Egypt. Below are some reflections on the change of identity I felt when I traveled to Egypt.

      One of the reasons I love to travel is that travel brings out new parts of my own identity that I have not been aware of before. Every trip is different and every time I am in a new place, I learn more about myself. Egypt was no exception to this. However, my reflections of my identity in Egypt are largely connected to my experiences in Turkey, where I had spent two weeks before arriving in Cairo. In Turkey, I lived into the identity of an independent, world traveler. This is an identity I have developed over the past five years as I have lived abroad and done a lot of traveling. Often this travel has been done with one or two close friends where we decide what we want to do and see and independently make a trip happen. I arrived in Istanbul with only a vague plan of what I wanted to see and do. I was met at the airport by my college friend Bekah and we spent our first three days staying with a friend I had met on another trip in her parent’s small flat and from these making a plan of other places in the country we wanted to visit. We spent the two weeks, making life up as we went and taking time to try to immerse within the Turkish culture. We would talk to locals as much as possible, participating in traditional meals, and drinking a lot of tea with the people we met. We also took the time to reflect on our time and our lives back home. Our theme song was “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin, with our favorite lyrics being, “No one to tell us no, or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming.” I felt myself open up in Turkey as I reveled in the freedom of unscheduled days spent exploring, chatting, and simply being. This would be a contrast to my time in Egypt.
            The other major way my time in Turkey influenced my time in Egypt was the occurrence of a suicide bombing in Istanbul on my last day in Turkey. Bekah and I were not in Istanbul at the time, but the bombing occurred at the main tourist square in Istanbul, where we had been only a week before. The suicide bomber intentionally targeted a group of tourists. This news came as a shock and we felt our sense of safety violated. Although we had been aware of political struggles in the country and the region, Bekah and I were in Turkey as tourists on vacation. I knew that some sort of attack could be possible, especially after the attacks in Paris in the fall, but I did not think that anything would actually happen when I was gone. All of a sudden the world did not feel like a safe place. As I traveled the next day to Cairo by myself, I found myself feeling scared and insecure in the world. I no longer felt like a confident, independent traveler. I arrived in Egypt not knowing what my identity was as I was confronted with a new environment and unmet expectations.
            My sense of an unsafe world was heightened with my arrival to Cairo. My group had been warned that there could be a lot of government tourist police with us as we traveled to make sure we stayed safe, but I had not expected the level of security we had. An armed security guard was on our tour bus at almost all times. Often times our bus would have a police escort as we moved through Cairo traffic. There was always people in the lobby of our hotel and they would not let us leave the hotel in big groups and would send security with us even if it was just a couple us. There was also military on the street and security guards with huge guns seemed to be everywhere. Although the security is meant to protect us as tourists and keep stability within the country, it scared me because it reminded me that the world is not a safe place and that there are people there who wanted to harm me. My identity as a white foreigner was brought to the forefront. This is an identity I have struggled with, as I do not like to be defined by American politicians and how the media portrays Americans. I strongly disagree with American foreign policy and the consumerist, individualistic culture that people associate with the United States.  However, at the same time I am a white, privileged American. This is a part of my identity that I cannot control or change.
            My identity as a white tourist in Egypt was also different than this experience in Turkey. In Turkey, I was able to stay with a local host the first couple of days and then the rest of the trip, Bekah and I stayed very cheaply at hostels. We were in tourist places and seen as tourists, but we were not extravagant in our travels and tried to go to local spots and even tried to learn Turkish in order to be immersed in the culture. In Egypt, we stayed at fancy hotels and stayed within our group most of the time. A lot of this had to do with logistics and costs. I understand this, but the transition from a seven-dollar hostel room that included Internet and breakfast to fancy hotel rooms changed the way I saw my identity. I really struggled with what I saw as extravagance and also the distance I felt from the Egyptian people. I was on buses and train, in restaurants and tourist sites with other tourists, mostly from North America. While in Turkey, I saw myself as someone engaging in the culture as a conscientious tourist, in Egypt I saw myself as a Western tourist paying to see a local culture, but remaining at a distance in order to stay comfortable. I regret that this was the case and that I did not have discussions early on in the trip to find ways to combat these feelings and find better ways to engage within the structure of the tour group. However, our schedule was busy and I did not take the necessary time to reflect on my identity and the ways I felt I was encountering and being encountered by Egypt. I was also frustrated by the lack of freedom that occurred because I was traveling with a planned tour group. I also tend to not like large groups and became shy and uncomfortable at many times during the trip. All these feelings and my inner struggle with my identity both as a tourist and as a member of a large tour group influenced the ways I experienced the identity of the Egyptians I encountered.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Relationships as Canyoning

          I am one of those people who really enjoys a good metaphor. Not a cheesy one that is taken too far, but one that seems to perfectly represent what I am going through. When I began dating this summer, I found one of those perfect metaphors that seemed to fit what I was going through. I realized that entering and being in a relationship is like canyoning. So canyoning is an activity that I did in Ecuador this summer. I hadn't known it was even a thing until I arrived in the town of Baños and knew immediately that I wanted to do it. Simply, canyoning is where you repel down waterfalls. I went with my cousin Cara and were joined by two guys in addition to our guide. We drove to a nearby mountain and then hiked partway up in wetsuits. Our guide would then hook us onto rope and we would jump off the side of the waterfall and make our way down.
          In preparation for this, we got basic training in town. We first watched a video of how to do it and then we practiced repelling on a wall outside. I compare this to all the time I was single. I have spent years watching my friends be in relationships. I have seen their mistakes and their different techniques. And in doing so, I did learn a lot. Going into a relationship, I felt that I knew a little of how it is done from watching others. And in canyoning, I got to practice. I learned how to stay perpendicular to the wall and to keep my feet flat. I felt good and was ready to conquer this new challenge. Until I got to the top of the waterfall.
          To begin repelling down the waterfall, you first have to take the first step backward off the cliff and trust that the rope is going to hold you and that your guide won't let you fall. This first step is absolutely terrifying. Even though I was excited about the activity, it took courage to make my way down. This was the same with dating. I have felt prepared to enter a relationship for a while, but the being vulnerable actually telling someone you like them is terrifying. It takes so much courage and vulnerability.
          I always imagined, though, that after that first step it would be fine. I practiced this and had learned from others, right? I knew to stay perpendicular and to keep my feet flat against the rocks. But what they didn't say is that the rocks aren't flat. Rocks are jagged and it is really hard to keep the correct position. Especially because you are in the middle of a waterfall and cannot even see the rocks or even your feet! You are trying desperately to keep your form, but at the same time you are freaking out because there is just so much water. This is nothing like the video or practice! And this is how I felt in my relationship. I thought I knew how to be a good girlfriend and the steps I should take. I thought that a romantic relationship would be similar to other relationships. I knew it would not be easy, but once I was in the midst of the relationship I realized there were so many things that I didn't know. I realized that there is no set path and you just have to go, trying your best to not be overwhelmed by the rush of new feelings and experiences. Just as the rocks were not flat and every waterfall is different, each relationship has to be managed in a new way and often this cannot be determined beforehand because there is no way to see how it will be.
          It turned out that I was not great at canyoning. There were a couple of times that I lost control and ended up hanging by the rope in the middle of the waterfall. However, my guide was able to hold me and lower me to safety. And I wasn't the only one. Even the really athletic, super-good-at-everything guy in my group fell during a couple of points. It is the same in relationships: no one is perfect in relationships. We all make mistakes and all have to realize that there is still so much to learn. But if we are lucky, we will have a good support system of not just our partner, but of friends and family who will support us when we lose control. Canyoning turned out to be totally worth the struggle. Even though there were some terrifying moments when the water seemed to be overtaking me, I had a blast. After the last waterfall, I felt like I triumphant. I conquered my fears and even though I was not perfect, I did this crazy thing. I made it to the bottom and was even able to have a lot of fun, despite everything.
          The relationship I mentioned back in November is now over. Looking back, I am able to see how much I learned. He and I were not the best fit and the rocks were not always smooth. I made mistakes, as did he. However, I have no regrets. I learned so much about myself and also what I want in a relationship. I will take all this learning to the next relationship I am in and I will be better because of it. I now know a little more of what to expect, although I also understand that like canyoning, all relationships are different and there is no one way to get through. I am sure that it will still be equally terrifying taking that first step backwards off the cliff, but I know now just how rewarding it can be. And so I look forward to the next time I go canyoning, even as for right now, I am so happy to be on dry, flat ground.
This is me canyoning in Baños, Ecuador this summer. I believe this is the waterfall that I fell in. However, it was still so much fun and I look forward to someday doing it again.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sağol Turkey

          My most recent trip started in Istanbul, Turkey. Once I knew I was going to go to Egypt as part of class I am taking at AMBS, I knew that plane tickets elsewhere would not be that much more. I had been to Turkey twice before, but I knew there was more to explore and I gained a Turkish friend from Istanbul while she was studying in Croatia. My good friend Bekah from college happened to be visiting her parents, currently working in Lebanon, at the same time, so I convinced her to come along to Turkey for two weeks. And we had the best two weeks. We were there from December 30-January 13, 2016. We spent three days in Istanbul, then flew to Izmir, Turkey where we spent 4 days, including a day trip to Ephesus and a day trip to Pamukkale, and finally five days in Goreme in the region of Cappadocia.

The Turkish word "sağol"is the best way I can describe our time. The word is used as a way to say thank you, but literally means, "be alive." That's what we did in Turkey. We came alive. We spent two weeks constantly in awe of the world around us and felt so thankful for the people, the culture, and the amazing country we encountered. Below are two lists we made during the two weeks. There is so much to say and so many stories to tell, but I think these lists describe things pretty well. The first is just some statistics and the second is a list of (mostly) positive interactions we had.

Airplane Rides = 3
Metro Rides = 18
City Bus Rides = 1
Mini Bus Rides = 8
Train Rides = 4
Camel Rides = 1
Miles Walked = Countless
Times We Got Really Lost = 0
Times We Got Kind of Lost on Mountains = 2
Hosted Nights = 3
Hostel Nights = 11
Hostel Nights We Had the Room to Ourselves = 7 (It was not tourist season)
Days We Saw Snow = 5
Turkish Vocabulary Words = 24
Museums and Other Historical Sites We Visited = 15
Colds = 1 each
Money Julia Lost = 40 lira (around $15)
Money Spent On A Money Pouch So Julia Would Stop Losing Money = 1 lira (around $.33)
Camels Julia is Apparently Worth = 25
Socks Purchased = 4
Money Spend on Socks = 7.5 lira ($2.49)
Pieces of Baklava Consumed (by Julia) = 10
Cups of Tea Consumed (by Julia) = 34

-Borrowing a phone from a stranger at the metro station to call Sahra
-Being shown amazing hospitality from my friend Sahra and her mother
-Australian couple attempting to take our picture outside the Blue Mosque
-A snowball fight with a security guard at Topkapi Palace
-Taking to Germans on the city wall of Istanbul
-Bekah ordered water completely in Turkish in Taksim Square
-Juice vendors gave us extra juice
-Church guard let us sneak in to see the church sanctuary
-A stranger paid for our metro in Izmir
-Turkish Muslim women took our picture in Ephesus
-Minibus helper gave us mandarin oranges while we waited for the bus
-Conversation with Americans studying at a med school in Israel
-Talking with a ceramic maker
-2 hour conversation and tea with Ali, a shoemaker/store owner in Selcuk (outside of Ephesus)
-Turkish men in Selcuk helping us get to the train station
-Hostel worker giving us advice of where to go in Izmir
-Feeding pigeons in Izmir
-The doughnut truck giving us free doughnuts in a neighborhood in Izmir
-A woman offering us more of her doughnuts
-Kebab guy praising our Turkish and giving us free tea in Izmir
-Guard in art museum in Izmir attempting to talk to us in broken English
-A German Turk serving us lunch in Izmir
-A Carpet Seller in Izmir giving us tea (and not trying to sell us carpets)
-Playing Charades and Contact with other travelers in Izmir hostel
-A Man on a minibus making sure we ended up where we needed to be
-Metro workers in Izmir helping us
-Hostel worker in Goreme helping fix Bekah's shoe (twice!)
-the Afghani cafe worker in Goreme we visited almost everyday
-Urgup and Nevishir, the dogs who followed us for a couple of miles (we made up the names)
-The Turkish woman who owned the cafe where the Afghani man worked
-The cafe worker at our other favorite restaurant in Goreme
-Our tour guide for the Green Tour in Cappadocia
-The cute puppies and kitties we encountered
-Our hostel owners in Goreme giving us dinner one night
-Julia, our hostel mate for one night in Goreme
-The pigeon trainer we met on a hike
-Kittens who tried to attack our picnic lunch
-A girl showing us the bus station in Urgup
-Cafe worker in Urgup giving us free tea and popcorn
-Our new Canadian friend Kaleb who helped celebrate my birthday

I hope these lists give a glimpse into our two weeks. There is so much more to say, though, about the stories we made up and the deep conversations Bekah and I had. I feel so blessed to have experienced so much Turkish hospitality with such a great friend.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


          I arrived back into the United States on Monday night after an exhausting five weeks of traveling to Turkey, Egypt, and Croatia. The trip was quite eventful as one can imagine and in the next week, I hope to write about my experience in each country individually. However, to start, I want to give this quote by Frederick Buechner that a fellow traveler just emailed to me.

"Sometimes we travel to get away and see something of the world. Sometimes we travel just to get away from ourselves. Sometimes we travel to convince ourselves that we are getting someplace.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews lists a number of gadabouts like Noah and Abraham, Sarah and Jacob, and the footloose Israelites generally. He then makes the point that what they were really doing was "seeking a homeland," which they died without ever finding but never gave up seeking even so (Hebrews 11:14).

Maybe that is true of all of us. Maybe at the heart of all our traveling is the dream of someday, somehow, getting Home."

~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words